John Doyle’s revival of Sondheim’s classic musical Sweeny Todd really boils down to a definition of Broadway. Are you more compelled to see startling and striking theater, or do you want to be blown away? Based on the higher and higher tickets prices audiences have been willing to pay over the years for such show stopping musicals, it looks like it may unfortunately be the latter. And yet, Sweeny Todd, where the cast doubles as the orchestra, may be the definitive marker for a new-wave theater, as joyfully minimalist as 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and (much as a musical about a serial killer can be) as funny too.
Not that there aren’t flaws with this new production: it would be unrealistic to expect to find ten prodigies able to sing, act and play musical instruments flawlessly, let alone at once. The score has been reduced slightly to allow for this more intimate performance, but all the complexities are still there, and only Manoel Falciano (who plays the insane – which is really to say, inspired – Tobias) seems capable of gaily sprinting from violin to action to song. It's simply more visceral to see characters punctuating their lyrics with aggressive (or tender) instrumentals: more rewarding, at least, than simply hiding the orchestra away in some forsaken pit.
Michael Cerveris, as the ominous Todd, glooms over the audience with a menacing façade and frightening glower; yet he’s all heart, and gives the barber his full range, from wounded human to demonic killer, in songs like “Pretty Women” and “A Little Priest” (the funniest song about cannibalism, bar none). He and Patti LuPone, to compensate for their large roles, don’t really play their instruments much, and in his case, Cerveris is excused. However, LuPone, as the campy Mrs. Lovett (a part she should be far better at after Noises Off) often delivers slightly under-par: still enjoyable to watch, but sometimes appearing as if she’s simply going through the motions. And of course, that’s still far better than the uninspired performance delivered by Lauren Molina (Johanna), flat not only in her acting, but her singing as well. Perhaps it’s just that Benjamin Magnuson, who plays her lover, is one of the better elements of the show, or maybe she’s simply too inexperienced for the complexities of life, and Sondheim.
As for the presentation of Sweeny Todd, it is squeezed center stage: the one wall takes up more space than that—it stretches up to the catwalk. The effect is haunting, although the chaos of the final sequence is somewhat diminished and underwhelming. But when all the actors are being utilized for group numbers, like the upbeat “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” it is easy to see John Doyle’s appreciation for this brand of theater. Oscillating between a sales pitch and the pitch of their instrument, the actors become one with their instruments, and that’s exciting to watch. And, at worst, when there’s no blocking and the actors supposedly talk to each other from across the stage, Sweeny Todd is still enthralling—an oddball concert version at worst, a deliciously original adaptation at best.
Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th Street, $36.25-101.25, 212-239-6200; Fri 8pm, Sat 2 & 8pm.
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